chance of bowl: 13.6%
It was a good week for the Wolverines, winning by 24 points 34-10. While some questions remain for the offense, the defense seems to have assumed an identity. Week 4 rankings include 4 Big Ten teams with Nebraska ranked the lowest (24th) and the only ranked Big Ten team to remain undefeated. MSU(11) keeps the highest spot coming off a bye week.
Last week recap:
Winners: Iowa State(+12.5) @ Iowa 20-17
Nebraska(-10) @ Fresno State 55 -19
Kent @ Ohio State(-32) 0-66
UL Lafayette @ Mississippi(-27) 15-56
Losers: Houston @ BYU(-18.5) 25-33
Penn State @ Rutgers(+3.5)(for the WIN) 13-10
Georgia(-5.5) @ South Carolina 35-38
BYU is a good team but is too undisciplined to go very far this year. One of their starting def. lineman was thrown out because he tried to punch a guy. I’m just saying. Rutgers looked like they should have gotten the win last week but they seem to be afraid of success. Welcome to the BIG TEN!
SoFlaWolverine adds Washington to his win column.
Maize_in_spartyland adds TCU and Wakeforest to his win column.
For those of you who can’t wait till Saturday, here is Thursday’s most interesting matchup:
Auburn(-8.5) @ K-State:
Power Rankings: AUB 4 K-State 17
Auburn(5) moved up 3 spots in the power rankings, is 2-0 and 0-2 ATS. This will be their first challenge away from home and their first match up against a ranked opponent. K-State is 2-0 and 2-0 ATS. Both teams are 2-0-0 O/U. Last year Auburn beat K-State(20) 23-13 even though K-State outgained them 316 TOT – 291 TOT. Coates is out for Auburn this week and this could have an impact on the game as he accumulated 902 yards in receiving with 42 catches last year. Auburn is ranked 31st in def. this year but only 48th in rushing def. This is coming off opponents ranked 110th and 3rd in rushing, so it might not be that concerning but K-State is ranked 32nd in rushing off. K-State def. is ranked 23rd and had a good showing against Iowa State. I see Auburn winning this game by a field goal and a mutual offensive struggle.
K-State to Cover and the Under
A look around the Big Ten
IND @ Missouri(-13):
Power Rankings: IND 80 MIZZ 18
Indiana just lost to BGSU and struggled to beat their instate rivals, need I say more? I will anyways. Mizz comes off a strong win against UCF 38-10 and shouldn’t have any problems against Indiana. I’m guessing Vegas is concerned about the air raid that is Indiana’s only offense. I’m not, since UCF possibly has the best receiving core in the FBS. Get in on this line early to keep a 2 touchdown win.
Missouri to Cover
Utah @ Michigan(-5)
Power Rankings: MI 35 Utah 61
Michigan’s defense seems to be passing the eye test, and the numbers agree as they are ranked 7th overall and 10th and 23rd in rushing and passing. Last week UM was able to finish some drives but Utah is ranked 39th in rushing def. so far. The O/U seems low to me but I’m still not willing to bet UM puts up their share of points. Utah is ranked 14th in Off. This could be a very frustrating game to watch, or boring if you’re the type of fan than needs Michigan to put up 50 points a game. As a fan, Utah scares the hell out of me. As a real Michigan fan… I see Michigan winning this game by at least a touchdown. Utes are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 vs. Big Ten.
Over is 4-0 in Utes last 4 games following a SU win of more than 20 points.
Over is 6-1 in Utes last 7 games after accumulating more than 200 yards rushing in their previous game.
Wolverines are 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games in September.
Wolverines are 0-7 ATS in their last 7 vs. Pac-12.
Under is 4-0 in Wolverines last 4 games in September.
Disclaimer: I don’t bet on Michigan sports. I refuse to bet against them for one, and I am way too biased. Since I follow them so religiously, I can always find an insider reason to hype them up. So, take it for what it’s worth.
Michigan to Cover
Iowa @ Pitt(-6.5)
Power Rankings: Iowa 32 Pitt 51
SJSU @ Minnesota(-8.5)
Power Rankings: MINN 40 SJSU 116
I’m hoping the TCU game has mired anyone willing to bet on Minnesota. This line seems a little low as a result and SJSU got embarrassed by AUB. I’ll take a flyer on this one.
Minnesota to Cover
Southern Illinois @ Purdue
Power Rankings: PUR 76
No one seems interested in this game so….. No action.
Massachusetts @ Penn State(-26.5)
Power Rankings: PSU 33 UMASS 113
Miami @ Nebraska(-7)
Power Rankings: NEB 20 Miami 41
Miami has the 8th best def. but is only ranked 89th in off. so far. If Nebraska can get their offense rolling this could be a very good game. Nebraska is ranked 8th in def. and shouldn’t have any problem holding Miami to 3 touchdowns. Nebraska is ranked 43rd in redzone def. this year. That should be enough to keep Miami kicking field goals, which they seem more than willing to do this year with Goudis having 50+ yard range. I’m staying away from this line but I’ll pick up some O/U action.
I’ll take the under
Maryland(-1) @ Syracuse
Power Rankings: MD 73 SYR64
Eastern Michigan @ MSU(-45.5)
Power Rankings: EMU 122 MSU 12
Texas State @ Illinois(-14)
Power Rankings: ILL 60 TXST 86
Rutgers @ Navy(-6)
Power Rankings: RUTG 65 Navy 57
BGSU @ Wisconsin(-27)
Power Rankings: WIS 23 BGSU 116
Bowling Green is 2-1 and 2-1 ATS. Wisconsin is 1-1 and 0-2 ATS. WIS is ranked 9th in def. but an atrocious 88th in off. They are however 39th in rushing. BGSU is ranked 23rd in off. and 125th in def. There is a huge mismatch on both sides of the ball. In a game of rock, paper, scissors, Wisconsin def. beats BGSU off. Wisconsin has never lost to BGSU and is 3-0 in the series. Last week’s BGSU Indiana game really has this line screwed up. It opened at -21.5 and I don’t see it stopping till after -29. Wisconsin’s star running back only rushed for 38 yards on 17 carries against Western Illinois 2 weeks ago (they had a bye last week). He had a good showing against LSU the week before though. WIS also returns their 2 best interior def. lineman. They were injured against LSU and I really think WIS would have won that game if they hadn’t been. I wouldn’t wince at this line if Wisconsin was 2-0 and BGSU didn’t complete a game winning drive late against a pathetic Indiana team. BGSU has a very fast paced off. completing 133 plays against Indiana. Wisconsin has held opponents to an average of 59.5 plays so far. Wisconsin is poised for a lopsided victory this week but I’m not sure how lopsided. I would wait till the line moves above -28.5 and take BGSU if I wanted this action. Instead, I’ll just take the under as it’s 4-0 for the Falcons.
I’ll take the Under
Western Illinois @ Northwestern
Power Rankings: No action on this one… Yawn
This week’s top ranked matchup: happens to be on Thursday, so… I bring you… wait for it…
Clemson(24)@ Florida State(1)(-17)
Power Rankings: FSU 3 (Damn) Clemson 24
For perspective, Clemson falls directly between Nebraska and Ohio State in the power rankings. Clem is 1-1 and 1-1 ATS while FSU is 2-0 and 0-2 ATS. Clemson’s only loss is to Georgia 21-45. Clem is ranked 27th in off. and 6th in def. FSU is ranked 42nd and 43rd in off. and def. respectively. They are also coming off a close win against Oklahoma State 2 weeks ago. Clem loss in embarrassing fashion to UGA their first game of the season. The last 2 times these teams met FSU won, tying a ten game series. In the 27 times they’ve played FSU has won 19. This game looks to be FSU’s last challenge to an undefeated season. In fact, FSU has a 73% chance to win every game this year, giving them a 40% chance to go undefeated and make the playoffs. This is more than double any other team in the FBS. It’s almost enough to make you sick. This line opened at -20 and I think it is about where it should be. However, last year’s Heisman winner J. Winston has been suspended the first half of the game for using vulgar language… %*$# This was released yesterday so expect the line to drop a little. Looking at the offensive struggles against UGA, Clemson looks like they could blow the best opportunity they’ll have to get back into playoff contention. But against South Carolina State, Clem put up 737 yard in a 73-7 win. If the Seminoles can stop Clemson’s pass game they will cruise to an easy victory as no one for the Tigers has more than 82 yards rushing. This should be a great game to watch, and a chance to route for Clemson to spoil a potential repeat.
Clemson to Cover
Now, your surefire win of the week, guaranteed to make you look stupid and lose you 50 dollars in the office pool:
Texas A&M(-33.5) @SMU
Power Rankings: TAM 10 SMU 127
Coming in at a 75% consensus, this week’s sure fire win will feature the most dynamic offense in the country. TAM is 3-0 and 2-1 ATS. SMU is 0-2 and 0-2 ATS. TAM is ranked 4th in off. and 68th in def. so far. They’re coming off a season opener win against South Carolina, 52-28, where they decided on this year’s game plan, keep the opponents offensive off the field by keeping your offense in their end-zone. They also put up 73 points against Lamar, so there’s that… SMU is ranked 128th in off. and 105th in def. They are however ranked 43rd in pass defense. I expect that ranking to drop about 20 spots after this week. SMU’s starting QB is also out for the season with an injury. This game couldn’t look worse for SMU.
Aggies are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 road games vs. a team with a losing home record.
Aggies are 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games on fieldturf.
Aggies are 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games after allowing less than 20 points in their previous game.
Mustangs are 0-4 ATS in their last 4 games in September.
Mustangs are 0-6 ATS in their last 6 non-conference games.
Over is 7-1 in Mustangs last 8 games following a S.U. loss.
Texas to Cover and the Over
Who you Pick’n?
Any comments and suggestions are welcome. Good luck at the races!
Ahhh, a red snapper. Mmmmm, very tasty. Okay, Weaver, listen carefully. You can hold on to your red snapper... ...or you can go for what's in the box that Hiro-San is bringing down the aisle right now! What's it gonna be?
In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a fair amount of talk around here about a coaching change. Some have already made up their mind, especially after Notre Dame. Others, like me, want to wait until the end of the season, but I think we all recognize that it’s a real possibility if the team doesn’t show consistent improvement.
So, here we are. We might as well talk about it.
My personal feeling on coaching changes is that you have consider all the possibilities that can happen, not just focus on the potential positives. A lot of debates seem to just compare our current situation against the best case scenarios and dismiss the potential negative effects and scenarios that are possible as well. Names like Harbaugh and Chip Kelly are often brought up as an example of guys coming in and turning programs around, and as examples of why Hoke’s struggles of late are inexcusable not matter what the issues he’s had to deal with.
But guys like that are special and don’t grow on trees. You can rattle off their names off the top of your head precisely because they are the cream of the crop and the exception to the norm. But what happens the rest of the time? It behooves us to look at all the data, not just the outcomes we want.
Coaching Changes 2007-2011
We start with collegefootballpoll.com’s database of coaching all coaching changes in FBS. Since Michigan has a bit more job prestige than your average FBS team, I only included teams in the Power 5 conferences (B1G, Big12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC) and strong independents like Notre Dame to get a data set of teams more comparable to Michigan.
The database also does not differentiate between why changes were made whether they were retirement, voluntary resignations to move somewhere else, or firings. Clearly, only firings are relevant to our current situation, so I excised all examples that were voluntary separations, and further removed firings/forced resignations due to scandal. What we are left with are only programs that terminated their coach due to on the field performance.
We end up with a list of 36 coaching changes. These are schools in the proverbial “it can’t get worse” situation. These are schools that, even knowing the potential pitfalls of a coaching change, decided that enough was enough and something had to be done. You would think that schools in this situation would overwhelmingly benefit from a coaching change. After all, they perceived themselves to be a position where they had nowhere to go but up. As we’ll see from the data, and as we learned from our 2012 offensive line situation, things can most definitely get worse.
Do Coaching Changes Result in an Increase in Win Percentage?
We’ll first compare the performance of the new coach over their first three years vs the previous three years. The graph below shows the differential between the average wins per year of the outgoing vs incoming coach.
As you can see, it’s a mixed bag. The average change resulted in less than 1 win per season improvement (0.88 win/season), and the variation is pretty huge. On average though, coaches could not manage to significantly improve even upon the performance that was so bad it got their predecessor canned.
The big positive turnarounds should be familiar to you. These are, for the most part, the coaches you already know because this is how they made a name for themselves. Franklin at Vanderbilt, Brian Kelly at ND, Nick Saban at Alabama, Sarkisian at Washington, and our very own Brady Hoke are among the names that top the list.
The Immediate Impact
Next, let’s looked at now the new coach fared in the first year compared to the previous 3 year average.
The results here are even less encouraging. On average, the first year for the new coach was slightly worse than the previous coach in the 3 years prior to being fired (-0.11 wins/season). Brady Hoke and Houston Nutt were the significant positive outliers (mostly because their predecessors were really bad over their three years). On the other side of the spectrum, Minnesota replacing a perpetually on-the-cusp Glenn Mason with Tim Brewster was the worst idea ever.
The negative first year differential isn’t totally unexpected though. Coaching changes come with transition costs. There are transfers and the guys that stay have to learn a new system, sometimes one that doesn’t suit their talents. Clearly, those expecting an instant improvement will most likely be disappointed.
Third Year Performance
But what about year three? The new coach has installed his system on both sides of the ball and by now his recruiting classes are starting to see the field. One would expect that by now, they’ve overcome the initial hurdles and can place their stamp on the program.
Here, the data is finally a little more encouraging. Most schools were better off after year 3 than they were in the 3 years prior to the change. The average differential was about a game and a half better per season (1.44). This also suggests that generally coaches improve from year 1 to year 3, something Hoke has been criticized for not accomplishing (although, it must be said, he had the biggest year 1 turnaround of all coaches).
A Closer Look at the Turnaround Artists
People will say, “Well, just don’t make a bad hire then.” But do the guys that succeed really look that different from the ones that don’t?
If you look at the list of names that managed to turn schools around, just about all of them would be on anyone’s coaching wish list. But, do their track records before they were hired look like as much of a slam dunk as they seem now? Was there something on their resume at the time that differentiated them from the unsuccessful candidates, and screamed to ADs “Hire this man!”
If we limit the list to guys that improved their programs by an average of 3 or more games a season over their first 3 years, we have: Brady Hoke, Brian Kelly, Charlie Stong, David Cutliffe, Houston Nutt, James Franklin, Nick Saban, and Steve Sarkisian.
If we look at just the third year performance, the list adds: Art Briles, Bill Snyder, Butch Davis, Chip Kelly, Jim Harbaugh, and Jimbo Fisher. That's 14 guys total and is basically the top 1/3 of the 36 coaching transitions.
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these guys looked like at the time of their hiring:
Relevant experience at time of hire (epilogue in parentheses)
Up and down stint at Houston, although took over a 3-8 team. Went 32-28 over 5 seasons.
Life-long KSU coach, came out of retirement to help his former team. Unless Carr wants to come out of retirement, the situation is not relevant to Michigan.
Actually not that bad compared to the rest of the list… Similar to Brian Kelly, but one fewer stop. Improved a MAC Ball State year to year with 12 wins in the final season. Improved a 2-10 SDSU to 9-4 in two years.
One of the few with a slam dunk record. Improved teams everywhere he went from GVSU, to Central Michigan, to Cinncinnati (Big East). Only knock would be no power 5 experience. (Continued trend at ND until a tail off last year.)
One of the only ones on the list with proven HC experience at a Power5 school (6 years at Miami) and, like Saban, moved from the NFL back to college after being mediocre there. (Fired for misconduct at UNC in 2011)
Just 1 game of HC experience at Florida as interim (after Zook got canned). DC for 3 years at South Carolina and Florida each.
No HC experience, but fairly bulletproof record at OC. Similar to Rich Rod, had a signature offensive system that was successful everywhere he coached. OC at New Hampshire prior to that. (Now in NFL)
Long, up and down stint at Arkansas. 10 win high, 4 win low, 75-48 overall. (Fired by Ole Miss after 3 years. Took over tire fire, immediate success followed by precipitous decline.)
WR and QB coach at Maryland and KSU respectively, then went on to OC at KSU and returned to Maryland as OC. No Head Coaching experience,
Promising 3 seasons at FCS San Diego (Fighting Toreros!) as HC including conference champs in last two years. QB coach in NFL prior to that. (Now in NFL)
No prior HC experience. OC at LSU under Saban and Miles, and then at FSU where he was groomed as coach in waiting after Bowden retired.
Hovered around 6-7 wins before getting 9 in his last year at MSU, ~9 wins a year at LSU except for one 13 win season, turning around a floundering 3-8 record the year before. And then 2 rather lack-luster seasons in the NFL. One of the few proven entities at time of hire on this list.
No HC experience prior to hire. 2 years as QB coach at USC, 1 year QB coach in NFL, 2 years as OC at USC and went 22-3 in those years
These guys fall into one of three categories:
Proven HC Experience
at High Level
Up and Coming HC
at Lower Tier
Up and Coming OC or DC
at High Level
Of the proven category, Bill Synder was a career KSU man and a bit of a unique situation, coming out of retirement to help his former team. Michigan does not have an analogous option (Carr ain’t walking through that door). Houston Nutt’s 4th year at Ole Miss was 2-10 with no conference wins and got him canned. David Cutcliffe is stretching the definition of "proven" as he treaded water for 4 years before a good year followed by a bad year and was fired before becoming Duke's coach, a big step down from Ole Miss. Butch Davis left in scandal.
From the 5 years reviewed, Nick Saban was the only example of a successful hire of an established coach that Michigan can hope to replicate. Rick Neuheisel (UCLA) is an anti-example as an established hire to avoid. After a moderately successful HC stint at Washington that won the Pac-12 and rose bowl, he took over UCLA and only managed 21-29 over 4 years before being fired.
Neither of two the remaining categories are slam dunks either. For every rising HC star at lower tier schools that finds success at the next level, there are many more that don’t. Paul Wulff (Washington State) was an up and coming HC at the FCS level, earning Big Sky Coach of the Year honors in 2001, 2004, and 2005, but took over Washington State and won just 5 games in 3 years.
Same goes for rising coordinator stars. Randy Shannon (Miami) fielded two top 5 defense and three other top 10 defenses in his 6 years as DC in Miami prior to being promoting HC. Even with the relatively smooth transition you’d expect from being promoted within the same school, he went 5 - 7 - 9 - 7 wins compared to Coker's 9 - 9 - 7 that got him fired. Shannon himself was fired after year 4.
On the offensive coordinator side of things, Dana Holgorsen (WV) was a promising OC at Oklahoma St that turned the #61 offense to #1 in just one year, shattering school records in just about every offensive category (total yards, scoring, passing yards, completions). But he flopped at WVU averaging 2 games worse a season than his predecessor and winning just 4 games last year (although they look more competitive this year)
As bad as some of these hires seem in hindsight, at the time, these guys don’t look all that different on paper than the ones that went on to succeed. Interpreting a coaching record is tricky business (is Brady Hoke the guy that improved every team he coached, or the career sub .500 mid major coach?). And as they say, “past performance does not guarantee future results.” It’s not just a matter of having a competent AD make a straight forward decision; it’s a very tough call for anyone and in most cases relies on leap of faith that someone can continue their upward career trend.
One other thing that immediately hit me when putting together the data is just how many of these guys are no longer around.
Only half the coachs on our list of 36 are still at their schools. It gets worse as you go farther back in time. Of the 8 coaches hired for the 2007 season, Nick Saban and Mark Dantonio are the only ones still around. A whopping 5 were fired and another (Harbaugh) left for the NFL.
Even among the 14 “winners” covered above, the story is not much better. 5 guys capitalized on their success and moved on to other positions, and 2 were fired (one scandal, on failed to sustain their initial success), only 7 remain (Snyder, Saban, Briles, Hoke, Kelly, Fisher, Cutcliffe).
What We’ve Learned
Coaching changes are not guaranteed to succeed.
Coaching changes are a lot like Blackjack. If you’ve got 13 and the dealer is showing an Ace, you better hit. You might bust, but you don’t have much of a choice. On the other hand, if you’re sitting on 17 and just getting greedy, asking for another card could completely backfire on you. It's a calculated risk that should only be taken if you know your current situation is untenable.
Coaching changes take time.
The data shows that year one after a change is, on average, is a step back. Most of the time, it takes even the best a few years to get their teams going. Unlike Blackjack, with coaching you only get to play a hand every 3-4 years, and the cards you’re making a decision on get dealt one per season, so you better be patient and make a good call.
Even if you hit it big, you’re not in the clear
If you’re one of the lucky ones to get a good coach, the data shows there’s a good chance they’ll capitalize on their success and move to the next stop in their career. So even if you hit it big at the casino, you still might get robbed and wake up the next morning back right where you started. Michigan is probably a destination job for most coaches among the college ranks, but the SEC and NFL always beckon.
If all this sounds like a sales pitch to retain Hoke, I apologize because that's not my intention. I'm not opposed to a coaching change and I tried to remain as objective as possible while putting this together. There are certainly success stories to try and aspire to and I recognize the last year or so have certainly not been ideal. However, we should be mindful of the pitfalls as well when making the call and hopefully this diary provides some insight into those.
Thanks for reading.
Sorry for this
It was an unseasonably warm late November day in St. Louis, the kind of day that happnes once or twice or three times each winter there but would never grace Ann Arbor. My buddy's apartment complex had an outdoor pool that was still open, and he invited me over for a swim.
It was 2010, and we had just watched the Michigan vs Ohio State game a few days before. Even on this perfect day, standing in perfectly warm water looking around at beautiful, barely-bikini clad co-eds with perfect bodies we couldn't be completely happy.
I broke the silence first: "Rich Rodriguez has to go." My buddy bristled. His face transitioned from relaxed to tense almost instantly. We had both been RR supporters since his arrival on campus, but his expression told me that he knew I was right. "We'll never have an offense like this again," he responded. I nodded, then gave the obvious counterpoint we both already knew: "But hopefully we'll never have a defense like this again, either."
Here's the thing: though Ohio State had pummeled us by a score of 37-7, the game wasn't nearly that one-sided. We had piled-up 351 total yards of offense and had opened the game with two long drives: one that ended with a turnover on downs--since by that point in the season we didn't trust our kicker to even attempt a 45-yard field goal--and one that ended in a lost fumble at the Ohio State nine-yard line. Terrelle Pryor had to scramble about 50 yards on one thrid down to keep their first TD drive alive, then thread a perfect pass between two defenders that might have picked it off had it been just inches different in either direction for the score. And even though the Michigan offense chugged along a bit more, the defense completely fell apart and it was 24-7 by halftime. Game over. Season over. RR era over.
This is Michigan
Since I am an unreasonably passionate fan, I started doing research on who would eventually replace RR right away. While Dave Brandon said he was going to follow a "process" before deciding what to do, it was pretty clear that Rodriguez was on his way out the door. Even a victory in the Who-Gives-A-Fuck bowl wouldn't save the man who had coached Michigan's most fun offense and least effective defense. As it happened, the bowl game made the decision even easier.
Among the publicized possibilities for the position--Miles, Harbaugh, Fitzgerald, Hoke, etc.--I quickly found myself in the Brady Hoke camp. He had taken Ball State to an undefeated regular season. He had turned around SDSU in two years on the job. He seemed genuine, likeable, and he clearly loved Michigan. Don't get me wrong--I was hardly sold on Brady Hoke as the savior of our once-proud program, but he seemed like the best option.
But then he said all the right things at that first press conference, fergodsakes. My optimism took over. We were back.
In a lot of ways, that 2011 season was very un-Michigan-like. Things seemed easier than they should have been. The loss at Michigan State was maddening, but the trash tornado and brazenly unnecessary roughness of Staee made it feel a bit invalid. The Iowa game was VERY Michigan-like: an unexplainable gameplan with an even harder to understand performance that would give the Hawkeye faithful renewed faith in their consistently inconsistent head coach. But other than those two aberrations, the bounces all seemed to go our way, we broke the streak against Ohio State (now just "Ohio"), and we won a BCS bowl game to which we maybe should not have been invited and in which we certainly didn't outplay our opponent. Michigan never wins games like that, much less has seasons like that.
The 2012 schedule seemed foolishly challenging, and an 8-5 result with a close bowl game that we perhpas did deserve to win with our shiny new starting QB who seemed more than capable of both passing and running (Devin Gardner) gave us great hope. 2011 had proven Hoke's coaching chops in our minds, and even with doubts about Al Borges, 2013 looked oh-so-promising.
QB Oh Noes
Rather than talk about the Season of Infinite Pain--which is still all-too-fresh in our minds--I'd rather bring-up this happy memory. The great thing about RR's offense isn't that it always works--it didn't. No, the truly beautiful thing about a well-run spread outfit is how easy it looks when it's clicking. Watching Denard take two steps toward the line of scrimmage before flicking a wobbly duck to a W I D E open Roy Roundtree never-ever-ever got old. It made defenses look inept and Rodriguez look like a genius. When it worked.
And maybe that's why it was destined to leave Ann Arbor: Michigan isn't allowed to have it easy. I'm not sure if this is God's decree, but U-M is not graced with swimming pool days in late November or football seasons where everything goes our way. Even 1997 seemed impossibly hard, overcome only by the superheroics of Charles Woodson and friends.
This just happened
And maybe that's why I was so furious on Saturday. It shouldn't be hard against Miami (NTM), should it? I mean, it shouldn't be hard against any team whose football prowess is so pathetic that a paranthetical clarification is required. Not for Michigan. And yet, here I am, four years into the Hoke era, with my optimism completely erased and thinking to myself, "I will have to reassess my loyalty to this coaching staff at the end of the season."
But this is as it's always been. And looking at the numbers, I wonder if my frustration is somewhat without merit: through three games, we are 25th in the country on yds/play on offense and 10th in the nation on yds/play on defense. Sure, we've played two cupcakes, but so has everyone else in the top 25 (actually, Nebraska has played three). The offense seems to make sense, and the fake-bubble TD was reminiscent of the ease of QB OH NOES! Of course, even on that play, the throw was a bit off and the catch was bobbled. Still, a calm, rational thinker would look at our team and say, "You know what, this team actually could be really good before the season is over."
But this is as it's always been. The Lloyd Carr era brought a National Championship, but was consistently frought with losses that should not have been. Nine or ten wins felt like an unbreakable ceiling. Even the orgasmic streak of victories over Cooper's Buckeyes was shattered by a Youngstown State coach.
So why does a game against NTM have to feel like a Herculean effort? Why does a very respectable loss to an underrated (by me, at least) Notre Dame team have be a 31-0 result? Why can't it just feel easy, or even easier than impossible when we take the field? Why can't I feel even slightly confident about a game in East Lansing or Columbus?
I don't have answers to these questions, so I will do what a Michigan fan does: I will watch every game, often in agony, and wait for the end of the season to decide if there is any optimism left in me, or if it's time to have another talk with my buddy in the pool. Why? Because this is Michigan, fergodsakes.
WEEK 3 IN THE BIG TEN: REPORTS FROM THE EYEWASH STATION
As we are aware, the Big Ten has not exactly gotten out of the gate this season at a blistering pace. Just this past weekend, for example, Rutgers chokes away a lead against a Penn State team that seemed to be forever 3rd and 6, Iowa had the impudence to lose to Iowa State and saddle them with the CyHawk trophy, Indiana loses to Bowling Green, Minnesota gets curbstomped by TCU, Kent State really had Ohio State on the ropes for a few precious seconds when their bus parked across two spaces in the parking lot…and so on. Let’s just say that the explanation for all this probably sounds a lot like this:
So, let’s embark on a discussion of where Michigan sits after three weeks, and again, we’re going to rely a little more on a discussion format here as averages still don’t mean much at the moment. Still, for what it is worth, here are Michigan’s summary averages and where they sit with regards to the conference as a whole:
Scoring Offense – 28.7 points, 9th
Scoring Defense – 18.3 points, 5th
Now, 10.4 points in the positive for a differential may not be impressive to some, but slap a minus on the same number and you can be Purdue. Just saying.
Total Offense – 436.3 yards, 5th
Total Defense – 252.7 yards, 1st
The defense has definitely been doing its job. Actually, we’ve been gaining 2.1 yards more than our opponents so far on average on a per play basis, which is excellent.
Rushing Offense – 242 yards, 3rd
Rushing Defense – 80 yards, 3rd
On one side of the run game, a huge turnaround. We have made 44% of last year’s entire net rushing in three games. We’re also quite good at stopping the run so far too.
Passing Offense – 194.3 yards, 12th
Passing Defense – 172.7 yards, 3rd
Cumulatively for pass defense, we’re 52-93 for 518 yards total, good for a 55.9% completion percentage and about 5.6 yards per attempt. When we’re doing the throwing, it’s 48-73 for 583 yards overall, good for about a 65% completion percentage and about 8.0 yards per attempt.
Other notes – Michigan’s 1st down differential is quite good, averaging 6.1 more first downs than our opponents (all three of them, I know) to date, and our 3rd down conversion differential is 12.1% in the positive, so we win that battle too. Indeed, we’ve managed to allow only 31.8% of all third downs so far against us to be converted.
Here are some of the summary stats for the conference to date. Again, average of three numbers, strength of conclusions, grumble grumble…
I hope you saved some space on your plate for these #HOTTAKES.
Worst: Cue Up Morrissey
I'll get this right out up front; I am not nearly as down about this game as seems to be the general consensus. I'm a bit of an optimist at heart, but a 34-10 win where UM more than doubled the yardage of the opposition (while holding them under 200 total yards) and never being seriously challenged save for a random 5-minute spurt in the 2nd quarter in which everything that could go wrong did just doesn't get my blood boiling. Yes, the team looked out-of-sorts at times, and obviously this isn't one for the Gardner archives, but reading my Facebook feed and the comments on the internet, you'd think UM had just lost to MAC teams like so many conference brethren.
I do think there is a subset of the fanbase that must disabuse itself of the notion that Michigan can just impose its will on teams and the opponents will oblige by pulling their collective tails beneath them and scurrying away. The announcers of the game (who I thought did an immensely better job than last we heard BTN announcer/bitter OSU WR Joey Galloway and Beth "EMPhasis on the wrong syLLAble" Moowins) mentioned a couple of times that Miami wasn't "afraid" or in awe of UM. Now, maybe Angola was taken aback by the mere presence of the Dream Team in 1992, but a D1 team comprised of players from the same region should absolutely feel like it can compete, especially when the opposition is giving away possessions and clearly not at the top of its game for stretches of the contest. I know I'm harping on a seemingly-meaningless point, but the part of the Michigan internet echo chamber that drives me most crazy is the chicken little mentality that has existed for decades (and yes, this existed well before 2007). It wasn't pretty all the time, and there are definitely lingering issues (i.e. clock management at the end of halves, Gardner's skittishness and WR lock-on, coverages issues in the secondary), but this team looks light-years ahead of where it was last year in its third game against Akron, where they gave up 418 yards and needed a last-second stop at home. Michigan largely dominated an overmatched team saved for a string of bad luck in the 2nd quarter, and attempts to make it more meaningful or representative of the rest of the season feels like a fool's errand.
Best: Apparently They Listened
Last week I said that I thought it would behoove the coaching staff to pick one of the two key backs and give him the bulk of the carries for a game or two just to build some cohesiveness and see if Green or Smith could be the "feature" back in this offense. Well, after some chatter this week that Smith was seen gingerly walking around campus, Derrick Green was given 27 carries this game and turned in a pretty solid performance, averaging 6.2 ypc and 2 TDs. That average is both impressive (his long was only 27 yards, so it wasn't goosed by some massive run through the secondary) and a bit troubling (you kinda hoped the former #1 RB recruit could have broken a big run against a turrible Miami defense), but overall Green looked better as the game progressed and made some nice cuts and reads throughout the day, including what I believe was his long run where he went left then cut back right to burst through a massive hole on the backside of the play. Perhaps most promising was the fact that he ran thru contact far better than in the past, falling forward and getting those couple of extra yards good backs should always eek out. While I understand the value of multiple backs being interchangeable parts in the rushing attack, it does seem to help when a back can get into the flow of the game and run multiples series without being swapped in and out. While I'd still love for either Green or Smith to have that extra speed element that can turn some of these 10+ yard runs into 50+ yard TD runs, at this stage the rushing attack looks lightyears better than it did last year, when TFLs were abundant (only 2 this game, for a total of 3 yards) even against the dregs on the schedule (Akron had 7 for 21 yards).
Meh: Chaotic Neutral Devin Gardner
Gardner had an average performance, one that probably was a bit worse than I'm making it out to be (his mechanics seemed out of whack at times and a couple of his throws, including the INT, were a result of locking onto the WR and not setting his feet in the pocket) but also one not nearly as bad as the Russell Bellomy Special people are making it out to be. Coming on the heels of last week's second-half horror show, it was a bit disheartening to see Gardner throw another bad INT on a pass that led to Chesson getting sandwiched between two Redhawks. Also, and this is somewhat hard to tell from the sideline camera angle, but it felt like Gardner sensed breakdowns in the pocket that weren't there, leading him to scramble around and make off-balance throws where stepping up or shifting position slightly would have been sufficient. But unlike in years past, he halted the scuttling in the second half, and that wide-open TD to Butt that really broke the game open and settled everyone down. I saw some people complain that Gardner nearly blew that wide-open pass, but that type of throw actually seems harder than it looks precisely because of how open Butt was; as a QB, you are conditioned to expect a certain level of coverage on your receivers, and when a guy is that blindingly wide open it seems to catch lots of QBs by surprise and takes them a moment to adjust.
Overall, Gardner's numbers were fine (14+ yards per completion, 2 TDs, running when appropriate) and he seems to have found another weapon in Darboh that will help complement Funchess when he gets back. It was a workman-like performance, and coming off last week's game it was a welcome return.
Worst: ChadTomDrewJohnJimDenard HenneBradyHensonNavarreHarbaughRobinson Jr. Ain't Walking Through That Door
You always hear that the best position on a team is the backup to the "leader", whether it be QB, goalie, PG, etc. While the starter plays every game and exposes his failings on a daily basis, the platonic ideal of that player tends to manifest themselves in the form of the backup, who rarely sees the field and thus does nothing to dispel the notion that he would be superior to the incumbent even though in most circumstances, you know, he would probably be the starter if he actually was better.
Now, Gardner's problem isn't most people thinking Shane Morris should be the starter; beyond the "give reps to the future" camp, I haven't seen many people arguing Morris is better than Gardner right now at QB. What I do see, in veiled references and wistful posts, is the idea that Gardner is somehow demonstrably worse than those QBs who came before him, that if you put any of a dozen former QBs in his spot they would be world-beaters. To me, this mindset is the combination of whitewashing the past while stubbornly ignoring the realities of the present that you typically only see when you talk to Baby Boomers.
Look at Tom Brady's college stats, then remember he had future NFL Offensive ROY Anthony Thomas as the feature back, throwing to future 1st rounder NFL pick David Terrell and 3rd-rounder Marquise Walker, and was protected by All Big Tens Jon Jansen and Steven Hutchinson, with Hutch being one of the best 2-3 guards in the history of the program. Henne always had Hart and a cadre of NFL-quality WRs to throw to, from Braylon to Manningham and Breaston, and had future #1 overall tackle Jake Long covering his backside every year.
My point isn't to disparage the past accomplishments of players; Drew Henson could have been a transcendent star at UM if he had stuck around, and guys like Jim Harbaugh played in a different era but were absolutely deserving of the accolades they received. But they weren't world-beaters, and virtually all of them played on better teams, with better supporting casts and far more coherent offensive philosophies and coaching stability, than Devin Gardner. And they all had their flaws; guys like Henne and Navarre were notorious for locking onto their safety blankets (usually Braylon or Walker) and willing the ball to them, coverage be damned. Most QBs do that at various points in their careers, and anyone who has watched an NFL game with Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, etc. in the lineup knows that this behavior isn't confined to the college game. Brady emerged somewhat as a senior, but he seemed like the definition of a game manager throughout his career, with his last game against Alabama being so memorable because of how against-type it was compared to the rest of his career.
Barring an epic turnaround, Gardner won't go down in Michigan lore as one of the great ones; not enough record-breaking runs like Denard, too strong a perception that he throws interceptions and misses receivers be respected as a passer. And games like this one do nothing to dispel these notions, but that's an issue more for the viewer than the realities of Devin Gardner's tenure at QB for Michigan. He's a good QB who probably won't ever be great, and that's fine; you have to go pretty far back in the history books before you'd find someone who would fit that designation at UM. But the constant strawmen he's compared to, and the needless nit-picking that seems to follow his every performance, is both an unnecessary exercise in rabble-rousing and a disservice to a pretty good player.
Best: Depth at Wide Receiver or
Worst: Is That Depth Only Interchangeable?
It was great to see guys like Darboh, Chesson, and even a brief appearance by Canteen get some focus in a passing attack that still seems to be figuring out what to do with the players available. Darboh clearly established himself as the starter across from Funchess, and he looked sufficiently athletic enough to punish teams who single-cover him, at least with the ball in his hands (that first fumble was due as much to ball security as a good tackle by Miami). Chesson couldn't pull in a gorgeous pass from Morris in the endzone when the MU corner swiped his arm, and he was the intended receiver who got crunched on Devin's tipped INT, but he his holding off some decent players for his spot and is also contributing on special teams. Norfleet didn't catch a pass but had a great kickoff return to start the game and his 21-yard run on 1st down in the 3rd quarter gave Michigan great field position that they ultimately squandered. Even Jungle Beats got in on the action, and looked like he could be a playmaker as the season progresses.
At the same time, it was a bit disheartening to see the passing offense remain a bit stagnant, at least in terms of downfield threats. Darboh averaged a shade over 14.5 yards per catch, and that included a 26-yarder that featured quite a bit yac tacked onto a short slant/crossing route. The longest completion of the day was on Butt's TD, which required absolutely every Miami player to not keep their eyes on a big Butt as it passed them by.
Given how the offense seems adverse to throwing downfield consistently even when Funchess is available, my inclination is not that Michigan has a bunch of possession receivers but that they aren't being asked to stretch the field. So far Nussmeier seems content to take a couple shots down the field a game but mostly focus on getting the ball out to his playmakers and asking them to make yardage after the catch, highlighted by the multiple WR screens and quick outs we've seen for three weeks now. Hopefully as the season progresses we'll see a more diverse passing attack, but at least so far it does look like UM has playmakers outside, in the slot, and at TE.
Best: The Charmeleon'ing of the Offensive Line
I was a bit too old for the whole Pokemon craze, but having two younger brothers and playing a fair bit of Super Smash Brothers I was exposed to enough of the mythos to make this reference kinda work. The Pokemon creatures, both as a homage to the growth patterns of many inspects as well as a shameless money grab to force fans to purchase ever-more "intense" versions of the same basic character, "evolve" as they gain more experience in battles and, I guess, in life. So like a mild-manner turtle named Squirtle can become the weaponized Blastoise simply be practicing and becoming more attuned to its skills and abilities, it feels like the offensive line is becoming more proficient and cohesive every week. Yes there were breakdowns, but the running game didn't get overly bogged down after some early struggles, and as noted earlier it felt like Gardner's scrambles were as much a response to phantom pains from past rib-crushings than Miami consistently getting pressure. As always, competency is the end-goal this year, and this unit is going to struggle against some of the better lines on the schedule, but this felt like another battle won by the line, and every week they are gaining the experience necessary to take the next step in its evolution.
I'm sure the rush defense is going to struggle at some point this year, but its been three weeks in a row now where opposing offenses are getting absolutely stoned running the ball. Excising the one 1 sack by Beyer, Michigan held Miami to 46 yards on 23 carries, or a very tidy 2.0 ypc. The longest run of the day was an 8-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix, and at no point did Miami seem capable of getting a consistent push against the front 7. Both Bolden and Ryan looked more comfortable out there, though it still feels like Ryan is wasted in the middle given his disruptive abilities as a pass rusher, and Thomas was in to snuff out some runs as well. It continues to be a bit troubling that the team isn't recording buckets of TFLs, but its a minor quibble considering Miami had a total of 8 first downs all day, and most of those came on their two short-field scoring drives.
Best: All Those Penalties
One of those underrated stats that "smart" football minds used to lord over was the number of pass interference flags certain WRs would accumulate over the season. The logic is that a PI is at least as good as a completion; it typically means the defender had to bail out on whatever he normally does and resort to cheating to stop a long completion from occurring. Certain receivers tended to draw those flags more than others, and identifying them and their disruptive tendencies helped both defense as well as the offense because you could design plays that would isolate those players against corners and try to draw flags at key moments.
The corollary on the defensive line should probably be the false start, especially at the tackle spots. When you have a great pass rusher, your tackles know they need to get whatever jump they can in order to compensate, and as a result they'll try to "cheat" on quick counts to get that extra half-step before contact. In this game, it seemed that the Miami line was so worried about guys like Clark, Henry, and Beyer that they had 4 false starts plus one delay of game that immediately followed the first false start. Though they only recorded the one Beyer sack, Clark was consistently putting pressure on Hendrix, and had the line kept containment on a few plays they probably would have record 2-3 more sacks (one play in particular seemingly featured the entire line chasing Hendrix as he fled the pocket; you probably don't want to see that on a 4-man rush). It feels like the sacks are going to be there at the end of the year, and in this game the disruptiveness along that line just manifested itself in all the laundry being thrown by the refs.
Worst: Holding's Still a Thing, Right?
Each team was called for one hold in this game, with Michigan's coming on the last, meaningless drive. That seems about 100 short considering how overmatched Miami's line looked at times and how frequently a UM defender was thisclose to dragging down Hendrix or tackling a back behind the line, only to see that player escape for a minimal gain or throw the ball away. There is undoubtedly some bias in this view, but it felt like after the flurry of self-inflicted wounds by Miami to start the game, the referees seemed to let up a bit. Listen, just because Miami is screwing up before the play doesn't mean they aren't equally dumb during the play. It's the same mentality that led to the "press coverage or die" popularized by MSU and the Seahawks; nobody wants to call a penalty on every play, so accept some bad calls for the overall success rate you get by grabbing and holding. It didn't really matter in the end, but it was annoying to watch in real time.
Meh: The Secondary
I've never sat in on coaching meetings nor do I know the exact formations being taught by the coaching staff, but watching the game it felt like the corners were still struggling with the intricacies of the coverages being called. A number of times there were Miami receivers in the gaps between 2-3 Michigan defenders, with a corner trailing behind and a LB twisting around, trying to locate the ball. On one of those Bolden made a nice 1-handed deflection that probably would have been a nice reception without it, and an early 3rd-and-14 pass to Rokeem Williams was open between 4 Michigan defenders that Hendrix just underthrew. Again, some of these "mistakes" could have been designs of the defense that Miami simply countered; even bad teams can get you in a bad formation or find a hole in the coverage. And the defense was still down Taylor and Peppers was getting his first sustained time on the field, so some growing pains are to be expected. But I agree with Brian that the secondary still seems to be getting the intricacies of the defensive scheme down, which is usually a big enough problem if it wasn't also compounded by having the coach learning it for the first time as well.
Worst: Clock Management and Coaching or
Worst-er: Bitching about Clock Management and Coaching
Everyone complained about the slowest 4-minute drill to end the first half, and the decision to punt at the Miami 37 after a delay of game on 4th-and-1 were cringe-worthy, but I'm comfortably numb at this point to these brain farts with Michigan football, and would argue that this stuff happens to every team from time to time. Yes, great teams usually don't waste oodles of time in a close game huddling and then running clocking-killing runs from midfield, but Michigan is so far away from being a "great" team that "not screwing this up and getting somebody killed" beats out "throwing it for a pick-6 because your first-year WR runs the wrong pattern" even if the latter probably nets you more points over time.
I know fans want this team to be less derpy about clock management, but for better or for worse this is how Michigan has played for decades now. At some point you'd hope that the coaching staff pushes the envelope a bit and picks up the pace, but at the same time all coaching staffs have their blind spots, and when UM is back to consistently winning 10-11 games a year I'll start worrying about these wasted opportunities. It's probably a bit defeatist and unproductive, but no more so than the weekly complaints about it.
Best: One of These is Not Like the Others
Though the NCAA.com hasn't updated the stats for the week thus far, it is safe to assume that Michigan has one of the weirder profiles in college football. They sport one of the top defenses overall, especially against the run, and have a decent rushing attack (top 30-ish) and an emerging passing game. The kicking game is a little meh, but it isn't an atrocity either to the scale it was under RR. Michigan has outscored its opponents 117 to 55, and that is with the potential outlier of ND's 31-0 whatever that was. And yet, the team has a turnover margin of -7, with only some of that explained by poor ball security or bad throws. I know Michigan has been snakebitten in the turnover department for years now (save 2011), but it feels like that will have to rectify itself, especially given how strong the defense has looked overall. Provided the running game isn't a mirage and the line continues its solid play, that should take some pressure off Gardner and thus allow him to pass under less duress, and at some point you have to think Clark, Ryan, etc. will start creating turnovers in droves. Heck, Lewis's INT was a result of Hendrix being under pressure and throwing a floater up short. This team probably deserves to still be 2-1, and with a bit more luck, who knows?
Best: Cradle of Fandom
Usually during rivalry weeks around these parts, people talk about how they came to be a fan of the Wolverines. Many of the stories features tales of family members taking them to games as youths, or plopping down in front of the TV and catching a big game on national TV, or being inducted into the Michigan family before they even opened their eyes.
Me, I came to be a Michigan football fan by a more circuitous, or at least a less conventional, route.
Growing, my sport was basketball. Loved watching it, loved playing it, everything about the hardwood interested me. My favorite book was a compendium of the 50 best basketball players based on whatever criteria that ended up with Kendall Gill and just-out-of-college Christian Laettner.
|I'm as surprised as you are, Christian.|
Hell, I even bought Bill Laimbeer's Combat Basketball, even though I played it for about 5 minutes total. Now, I wasn't conventionally "good" at playing the game of basketball, but it remains one of the few competitive sports that comes with both single-player and multi-player compatibility out of the box; you can shoot alone on your driveway or join a pickup game seamlessly. My father's first passion was basketball, and some of my fondest memories involved playing horse with him as he taught me the hook shot and how to square my shoulders when taking a jumpshot. And growing up in the shadow of the Fab 5 era cemented my love for the game, though weirdly not for the University. Sure I loved the fact that my local college team was winning games with flair and had future pros up and down the roster, but you could have switched them with Central and I wouldn't have batted an eye.
Football was a different beast for me; while I had briefly played it as a youngster, it just didn't stick. My dad had attended Michigan and would watch the bowl games and the major rivalries on TV, but it wasn't a religious experience for him the way it seemed for other families. So it wasn't until 1995 when I attended my first UM football game, with my friend and his father, against the Miami (NTM) RedHawks. And as weird as it is to say nearly two decades later, that was when I probably became a true Michigan fan.
It was one of those beautiful fall days you always remember every football Saturday being even though most probably weren't. I had never been to Ann Arbor, so the hour-plus drive from Royal Oak, MI was a blur of highways and weird farm country. We parked a couple blocks off State Street (probably off Packard, but who knows) and walked down beautiful tree-lined streets to Hoover, then into the stadium. It seems like most Michigan fans have their first stadium experience in one of two ways; as small children taken by family, where everything is overwhelming and you don't really grasp it at the time, or as (relatively) jaded college freshmen who are impressed but have enough life experience and have many other things on their mind (e.g. getting acclimated to college life, classes, parties, etc.) that the full impact of the surroundings is muted.
Well, and this will sound like hyperbole, that was the moment I figured out I wanted to go to the University of Michigan. It's simplistic and over the years I obviously learned more about the school and how it fit into my future plans, but that day, sitting in those stands watching UM put away a plucky Redhawks team that felt eerily like this game (UM was never truly threatened, but that Miami team was pretty good at 8-2-1 and certainly had enough playmakers to keep up), I became enchanted with the football team, the stadium, the school, and everything that encapsulated. And that team UM finished with 4 losses, part of a 4-year streak in which the Wolverines finished with 4 losses each year, that ended in 1997.
I guess the reason I shared this story is that for all the complaining and consternation people around here have about the "direction" of the program, marketing efforts, ticket pricing and attendance, and all the other minutiae that occupies the days between gameday, it helps to remember that for lots of people, the magic isn't gone and the experience of being in that stadium on a crisp fall day is one that can have profound influence on their lives. Hell, the reason I was even there was probably because Miami was a "poor" opponent and tickets were readily available; earlier that year the 100k attendance record nearly ended when Memphis showed up. I'm not saying yesterday's game will lead to someone adopting the Wolverines as the University as his/her own, but part of me hopes that another generation of fans does.
Best: Bring on the Utes
It's fashionable to talk about Utah being a dangerous team, and I'll admit that Dres Anderson (who is one of my college football fantasy WRs) looks pretty good so far this year. But the two teams they have beaten are a combined 1-5, with that one win being Idaho St.'s "not as close as the score indicates but still not a good sign when the other team doesn't even have a logo on ESPN" win over Chadron St. The Utes have had a week to prepare, but Michigan will be a massive step up in talent compared to Utah's schedule so far, and while last year's Utah team upset Stanford and lost a nailbitter to ASU last year, it was otherwise handled pretty handily by the good teams on its schedule and only had a 7-point win over BYU on the road. It will be a tougher test that UM probably wanted when they scheduled this game years ago, but it also feels like a good barometer for the team's potential this season. I expect Utah to be able to move the ball at times, but Wilson is no Golson and if Michigan can cut down on the inexplicable turnovers, I think they'll emerge with a win.
Preface: are things like they used to be?
Game day in Ann Arbor is an experience steeped in tradition. Nevertheless, the stadium experience, and with it the student section experience, has necessarily evolved, even just within my 6+ years in the NW corner. So to kick things off, here are some rapid fire questions/answers:
Flasks? Yup, though I will add that, at least in the lower sections, most students appear to have gotten less tolerant of drinking and drunkenness from other students. If you’re being positive and happy drunk, great we love you. If you’re incessantly bitching about the team, complaining about the players, generally being negative and happen to stumble into me, I’m getting event staff. And I wouldn’t be the only one.
Marshmallows? Uhh honestly I haven’t seen this in any season I’ve been there…
Beach balls? Have seen them recently, didn’t today.
Cow bell? Depressingly not yet this season. Other students reading this: we must fix this if nothing else
Travelling band? Nope (and I don’t think they have for a year or so but I’m not sure). Definitely remember being entertained by that in years past
International student experience: Very little experience here. I can say that in my section down in the row A area there aren’t very many (if any) international students. For the CMU game last year there were a small handful nearly first in line in the student queue, though from talking to them they were under the impression that the game started when the queue opened….
Engaged? Yes, mostly. It’s hard to compare to past years given that the Row A experience is a little different than that in Row 96… But the students are certainly no less engaged than any other segment (and for better or worse they booed the punt decision just as much as everyone else)
The clock finally wound down to all zeroes in what was a rather strange game at the Big House. We cheered as the team ran over to the stands and then back down the tunnel., the small handful of us that remained down by the railing packing up while trying to ascertain from the stadium police what on earth the rope sectioning off the field from the sidelines was for. Apparently it is for preventing a field rush. This year. Against Miami. With a chem lecture’s worth of people left in the stands. Ok. We turned to the people behind us,
“Have a great weekend.”
“See you next week.”
There, that right there is in a nutshell the problem that we had last year in the student section. We hear every week “how great it is to be part of something that is the team,” but the team is something considerably more than just the 11 young men in winged helmets on the field at any time. It is more than the full roster, the coaches, trainers, student managers and everyone else who could by any definition conceivably purport to be affiliated with the program. Or at least it was supposed to be. The team is supposed to be something that unites every single person wearing their maize and blue in that stadium, or watching it on TV, or listening on the radio, or running around with their fingers shoved in their ears until they could watch the game they’d
taped TiVo’d later. The team is the group of people in the stadium around you, who over the course of 6–8 games you got to know—those people who were as much a part of your game day experience as the people you chose to sit by. And last season the athletic department forgot that.
Given what we’ve heard or been able to read between the lines about much of what went wrong last season: lack of upperclassmen leadership, lack of cohesion on the line, or the many other instances of lacking “the team”, it seems only fitting that that disconnect spread deep into the fanbase. Instead of creating an element of the team, general admission pitted students against each other for the best seats in the stadium. The result was often ugly: students trying to sneak in late to get better seats, students yelling at each other, anger and hostility, lack of team.
This year things seem different. Is everything hunky dory in the student section? No. You still get the occasional person drunk to the point of falling on you, trying to usurp your seat, and degrading the fan experience for everyone around you. Fortunately event staff can deal with that pretty readily (especially if this person is in the wrong seat—as is often the case because, listen man, reading is drunk when I’m this challenging). But in spite of that, the cohesive, friendly, spirit seems to be back; at least in the superfan rows.
Unfortunately there’s been some lingering damage. As we all are aware with the recent struggles on the line, poor decisions from the past can linger for far into the future. During GA, the bottom of the student section was ill-prepared to correctly do the wave, or, for that matter, nearly any cheer. I naively thought that bringing seniors and grad students back down to the bottom would fix the problem. As today’s rather unfortunate attempts to start the wave while only up by a touchdown, and the subsequent inability to start the wave in the waning minutes of the 3rd quarter once we were up by 14, demonstrated, that isn’t quite the case. This year’s seniors haven’t had a decent wave experience or even good wave leadership in two years. Last time it went well they were in row 60; they had no part in starting it.
We can bring that experience back. It’ll take some effort and some creativity. We’ll have to re-teach them. It’s doable. It’ll be challenging, but for the fan experience, it needs to be done.
Seating Policy in Review—Take 2
So honestly, after last weekend, I expected to be writing about how we’d tailed off quite a bit from last week, how students had filtered in, but outside of student fans weren’t there before kickoff. Well by and large that wasn’t the case. While many, many seats stayed empty throughout the stadium, the student section filled in by and large on time, and to no worse a percentage than the stadium as a whole. 102,824 will make *every* section look empty. For what it’s worth, the new policy does seem to motivate students to show up on time, even after a dispiriting loss, even against an overmatched opponent. What the policy doesn’t do is motivate students to come in the first place, and to stay to the bitter end.
The first of those lies entirely on the athletic department. When our attendance is dropping to levels not seen since 1995, and student ticket sales dropped to less than ¾ of last year’s, it’s time to look long and hard about the experience we are providing for the students. Asking students who often have little if any income, many of whom are taking on thousands of dollars in debt, to pay increasingly outrageous prices for a lackluster home schedule is unsurprisingly going to result in a small, less effective student section. Not to mention less engaged alumni down the road. From those I’ve talked to who are on the new Football Student Advisory Council, it seems like the athletic department is now listening. Sometimes slow to act, but listening. Vendors selling $2 bottles of water in the student section: fantastic idea. Allowing people to again bring in unopened bottles of water or empty reusable bottles would be significantly better, and obviously the ticket prices are the big one, but it’s a start.
The second point is on us. It’s a culture thing and it’s sad to say that it’s changed as much as it has. I remember riding the bus as a freshman reading a Daily article (I didn’t know any better back then) that was discussing at length the tradition of students staying until the bitter end. No matter what happened on the field, no matter how bleak things looked, those who stayed, well you know. And those in my year really seemed to live that. Our first season was the fan crucible of 2008. We were rewarded with the Wisconsin comeback. We had our resolve tested with the rain, snow, sleet, and locusts for the Northwestern game. We were kicked in the metaphorical nards rivalry game after rivalry game. But after 2008 we were committed. We watched the team slowly crawl back to some modicum of relevance and it felt like our commitment and loyalty had paid off. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for those who started in years after us. The seniors today weren’t on campus for RichRod. They didn’t experience that. They’ve had the opposite experience. They came in as freshmen and we won a BCS bowl. Since then we’ve underwhelmed. I have to imagine that, paired with that underwhelming performance, past classes (mine included) failed to adequately instill in the younger students the same rabid fandom that kept me at the 2008 Northwestern game to the end, and brought me from row 96 to row 14 in freezing rain despite numb everything. We were absolutely convinced in 2011 that the pain was over, our fandom had been vindicated. Michigan was back. We told the younger students about staying at games and cheering Michigan on to greatness. It appears that we may have missed the operative clause: “no matter what”. That too is changeable. It’ll be a slow process of growth back into “the team” but it’s doable.
Bringing back the student experience is not an overnight thing; we need to give them something to believe in. And with a team that has met its share of struggles and with an athletic department that seems more interested in the bottom line than the student experience, for all too many it’s hard to find that. Nevertheless change is possible. In my freshman year I attended my first UM BB game. They gave us free transportation, tickets, pancakes and a t-shirt just to get us to show up. They did what was necessary to get students there despite the underwhelming performance of the team. Since then we’ve been conference champions twice, have gone to the national championship game, and have won 6 of the last 9 against once dominant MSU (who had won 18 of the 21 games prior to the most recent 9). That basketball team got back to greatness because everyone was committed to doing what was necessary to bring it back. If the football team does make it back it will be because of the same reasons. If we want the student fan experience to come back to greatness, we of course need commitment from the students, but most critically we need the athletic department to let go of the processes that aren’t working, to stop focusing on things that should never have been the goal, and to do what is necessary to ensure that Michigan fans are not only part of the largest crowd watching a football game, but that that crowd has the best experience of any crowd anywhere in America, throughout the season.